Thursday, 17 March 2022 10:10

Open slather as ABC leaks data to Google, Facebook, Tealium et al Featured

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Open slather as ABC leaks data to Google, Facebook, Tealium et al Image by Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay

The ABC's claim to being the most trusted news site in Australia has come under serious doubt following the release of a video that shows how the data of users, logged in or not, is being leaked to a number of commercial outlets.

Researcher Vanessa Teague, one of the few technical experts to raise objections to the ABC's imposition of logins for iview users, pointed out on Wednesday that the ABC news website was also leaking data to the likes of Google, Facebook, Chartbeat and Tealium.

She demonstrated the leaking in a video she uploaded on YouTube, one that somewhat surprisingly has a very small number of views. Even hashed email addresses are sent to these commercial entities. iTWire has independently verified that this does indeed happen.

Last year, Dr Teague, who runs her own infosec company Thinking Cybersecurity, sought to obtain details of the data-sharing deal that the ABC has with Tealium — which styles itself as a customer data hub and enterprise tag management firm — but was knocked back after filing a freedom of information application.

In the 14 March video, Dr Teague used the Chromium browser — the open source version of Google's Chrome browser — to show how data streams were being sent to a number of companies, with even hashed email addresses, which could be easily deciphered, being part of the traffic.

She questioned whether thought had been given to the fact that data about people who had issues with their sexuality or even mental health issues could be among the bits and bytes harvested by the likes of Google, Facebook, Chartbeat and Tealium.

Though there has been some coverage of the compulsory logins for iview, which the ABC said would come in on 15 March but which does not appear to have been implemented yet, Dr Teague said the major issue was the data sharing.

She pointed out that it could have been going on for much longer than from the point she discovered it was happening.

In a tweet, Dr Teague wrote: "It's not just @ABCaustralia iView, it's also the @ABCnews website, probably the most trusted source of news in Aus. Details of what you're reading are immediately disclosed to Google, chartbeat and Tealium. Why are we doing this to our democracy?"

iTWire contacted the ABC and asked the following queries:

  • Though a date of March 15 was given as the one on which compulsory logins would be put in place, I still find that this is not the case. Can you please clarify?
  • The ABC is lying when it says that you can opt out of data sharing. The settings within an account do not give one that freedom. Why has the ABC lied about this?
  • What is the deal that Tealium has with the ABC? They seem to be mixing user data with Facebook material to target advertising even better than Facebook does? So why team up with them?
  • Is the ABC sending data to Facebook and Google as part of the deals it struck under the federal government's news media code?
  • Ever considered that children's data on viewing habits could also be part of the data that is fed to these three companies (and loads of others too)?
  • Has the ABC pondered what effect all the data that it is selling to these three companies could have on the forthcoming federal elections?
  • What about the effect on young people who have issues with their sexuality?

In response, an ABC spokesman did not offer replies directly to these queries, though in the past the same spokesman has insisted on "specific queries".

He said logins would be required for different devices in stages over the next few months commencing from 15 March and the implementation of that process had begun.

"The ABC does not offer a general opt-out of data sharing with service providers," the spokesman said. "The option to opt out from Promotions on Digital Platforms on ABC iview means hashed email addresses are not shared with Facebook and Google – this is clearly disclosed at the point of opt out.

"The ABC also offers an opt-in to marketing cookies on the Web so that they are not used unless the user opts in. Third-party marketing SDKs have been removed from ABC mobile apps."

He said the data sent to Google Analytics and Tealium was not the same as data that may be sent to Google Ads and Facebook, by way of a hashed email address, if the user had not opted out.

"Sharing data with Google Analytics is common practice, including among government agencies," the spokesman added.

He said the broadcaster aimed to provide a safe digital space for children to enjoy their favourite programs and other content.

"To make sure children are protected online, we:

  • "do not send any data for the purpose of promoting ABC content off ABC platforms, from children’s ABC iview accounts and profiles, and children’s apps;
  • "automatically opt out children’s accounts from Promotions on Digital Platforms;
  • "provide easily accessible privacy information to ensure parents and guardians can learn about online privacy, and how it affects their children;
  • "provide an easy to understand children’s Privacy Collection Statement written especially for kids;
  • "provide dedicated apps for children of all ages, (ABC ME, ABC Kids and ABC Kids listen), featuring parental filters to ensure parents are in control of what their children watch and listen to."

Whether this protection for children was triggered when children's programs were watched was not specified.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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